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China diary: Paris of the Orient

By TJS George
August 05, 2008 17:36 IST
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They say Beijing is all about power while Shanghai is all about money. Two factors combined to make Shanghai that way. First, the city was 'internationalised' by marauding European traders in the 19th century. Second, the Shanghainese are the banias of China, money-savvy masters of business.

The Shanghainese language, Shanghainese cuisine, Shanghainese self confidence, Shanghainese view of life -- everything about the Shanghainese make them different from other Chinese. Today Shanghai is recognised as China's smartest city as well as its financial capital, its industrial heartland, its fashion centre, the 'Paris of the Orient'.

This has led to a waning of awareness about Shanghai's cultural credentials. The fact is that at one point this port city was also China's intellectual centre. It was where modern literature took root. It was where the Communist movement found its initial acceptance at the masses' level. Prominent signboards in the city centre today mark the place where the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held. It is rather like Coimbatore putting up road signs proclaiming 'This is where the Communist Party of India Marxist held its Party Congress in 2008'.

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One of the world's most famous halls for performing arts is the Shanghai Art Theatre featuring French design, German construction, a Japanese stage and American acoustics. The re-birth of the arts in post-Mao China took place in this theatre -- a re-birth that reminded the world that Shanghai was the capital of China's performing arts in the 1920s and 30s.

Shanghai's young generation has taken to Western pop music in a big way. But they are a demanding lot. When the American band, the Backstreet Boys, recently visited Shanghai, local fans complained that the 'boys' had grown old and that the sound effects were poor. For an American saxophonist's concert in April, ticket prices ranged from 100 yuan (above Rs 600) to 1280 yuan (about Rs 8,000). Half the hall was empty.

Perhaps it is in literature that Shanghai's past glory shines best. In the early 20th century, the city witnessed the birth of a literary revolution. It was led by a man who is venerated today as an icon of China, Lu Xun. Two things were special about him. He questioned everything and considered nothing above criticism. His satirical writings ridiculing Confucian ethics became powerful hits with the masses.

Lu Xun was also the inventor of a new form of written Chinese. Till then all writing was in classical Chinese which only scholars would follow. Lu Xun boldly discarded this language and developed a new style of common man's Chinese. It made him a popular hero.

He was a political activist, a founder member of the League of Leftwing Writers set up in 1930. His radicalism suited the burgeoning Communist movement and the party leadership took full advantage of his popularity.

Perhaps Lu Xun was lucky that he died young of tuberculosis in 1936. Had he lived into Mao's China and the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, his story might have been re-written by the party. As it happens, he is celebrated as modern China's greatest writer. In a Shanghai suburb there is what is known as a Cultural Celebrities Street. The big attraction there is a bronze statue of Lu Xun. The inscription on it is written by Mao Zedong. Trees on the sides of his grave were planted by Chou En-lai.

Image: The Shanghai Art Theatre is one of the world's most famous halls for the performing arts. Photograph: Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images

Now a Bangalore resident, T J S George lived as a journalist in Hongkong through the 1960s and 1970s.

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TJS George